Failure is Essential to Knowledge Work

Max Pucher made an excellent post on “The Value of Failure” touching on a theme I have seen echoed around a bit lately.  Knowledge work is not predictable.  A professional will learn to do the right thing in the right situation, but along the way there are going to be some mistakes they learn from.  The key to surviving in the coming decade will be a culture that accepts failure as a path to success.

Amy C. Edmondson wrote in a Harvard Business Review article “Strategies for Learning from Failure” that while it is obvious that you learn from failure, most executives think that failure is bad and that learning from them is straightforward.  Most organizations play the blame game (something we probably learned in Kindergarten and could do without). Blame is seen as a way to encourage (force?) others to learn from their mistakes, but this is rarely the effect it has. Instead it has the effect of encouraging people to hide their mistakes.

Amy goes on to put failures into three categories:

  • preventable – these are the bad failures that might have been prevented if proper instruction or training was in place.  Checklists are one solution.
  • complexity-related – these are unavoidable due to the unpredictability of complex systems.  A sharp knowledge worker may come up with heuristics to avoid these much of the time, but you will never eliminate 100% of these.
  • intelligent – these are experiments that we can learn from. This is where innovation lives.

Jacob Ukelson wrote in “Preventable Faillure, Unavoidable Failure, Intelligent Failure” that these categories can be used to explain the deployment of BPM and ACM.  BPM is used to prevent failures in predictable situations by carefully mapping out the “correct” process and then enforcing it.  (I would add that BPM is also misapplied to prevent the other two kinds of failure, resulting in unworkable processes in the second kind of failure, and unfortunate limitations in the case of the third type.)  Jacob goes on to say that Adaptive Case Management (ACM) can be used to support knowledge workers who have to deal with complex situations, and that this is the driving reason for ACM to exist.  He feels that neither ACM nor BPM help too much in the last kind of failure however I disagree: a knowledge worker who is trying to innovate a new approach can still get a lot of benefit from a free-form case-based approach to working.

Max’s post gives us another point of view, that of IBM with its culture that supported innovation.  The perfect illustration is a great story of an executive failure that was considered instead to be a “$10 Million Education.”  Tom Watson Jr. supposedly said, “If you want to succeed faster, double your failure rate.”

Not failure is the outlier, but success is!

Max then relates this to the use of ACM, and how it actually supports the idea that failure is a good thing because you learn from it.

ACM enables large organizations to fail and innovate faster by ensuring that gained knowledge becomes transparent and reusable without needing a bureaucracy.

Not all companies have such a culture, in fact I might suggest that few companies have such a  culture.  Lack of such culture is the biggest barriers to adoption of ACM. Office workers in most companies are inefficient, but all their mistakes are hidden, which they believe that is critical for continued employment. Taking up ACM means that their mistakes will be far more visible than before.

The same is true of social business software: you are more visible in everything that you do on social technology.  This is great if you succeed.  It enhances the embarrassment if you fail.  However, if you can avoid feeling embarrassed, the organization as a whole will be able to learn from your mistake.  This is a big culture shift for most organizations.

Still, the point of ACM is organizational learning, such as that outlined by Peter Senge in “The Fifth Discipline”. You can’t learn if you are not allowed to fail, and yet many of our IT systems seem designed to prevent failure at all costs. If you are running a factory you want to prevent failure. Is it valid to say that a business is a factory?

Steven Spear is calling this a “High Velocity Organization” and that is actually the same thing, but with better marketing. ‘Learning’ sounds so nerdy, while ‘high velocity’ can appeal to any board of directors or investors.  The essential characteristic of a high velocity organization is that it has a culture to learn from mistakes.

Tom Koulopoulos has been exploring the innovation space as well and says simply “failure happens” and encourages us to fail fast and get beyond it.

The ACM crowd and to Social Business crowd have been too focused on technology. We need instead to figure how to convince organizations to be open to learning from failure.  Organizations need to understand what it means to shift into being a “Pull” organization.  For the edge to be empowered to innovate, it also needs to be empowered to fail. People who are afraid to fail, will shun all forms of social technology, ACM included. Knowledge workers are the future of all organizations.  Viability will depend upon learning to cultivate a culture that not only accepts failure, but appreciates failure for what it can provide.


9 thoughts on “Failure is Essential to Knowledge Work

  1. Keith,
    Great post. I agree with everything – especialy that we in the process community (including me) are too focused on the technology side of process management. While tools are important – they only help if they provide benefit to a process particiant or a process owner – preferably both; and do it in a way they accept.

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  4. As an addendum to this, in Friedman & Mandelbaum’s book “That Used to Be Us” they credit the ease with which a person could try a particular approach to business (i.e. a startup) to fail, and to start again, with being an essential ingredient to a healthy high tech economy. America got a lead over Europe because America did not permanently stigmatize those who go bankrupt. Far from wanting to encourage, or condone, bankruptcy, I can see the point: a “business safety net” is a way to encourage innovative new companies to form. Without it, entrepreneurs would be discouraged from trying. There is an interesting parallel to knowledge workers within a company.

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  7. Keith,
    I see you are an expert on Adaptive Case Management. Just started a project at P&G and it would be great to talk with you. If you’d have a few minutes to talk, you can contact me at Thanks

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